‘Conscience of white SA’ remembered

2015-05-14 06:00
                                         PHOTO: supplied
The launch of ‘Standing on Street Corners: A History of the Natal Midlands Region of the Black Sash’.

PHOTO: supplied The launch of ‘Standing on Street Corners: A History of the Natal Midlands Region of the Black Sash’.

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A NEW book on the Black Sash, which marks the organisation’s 60th anniversary, will be launched at the Tatham Art Gallery this ­weekend.

Described by Nelson Mandela as the “conscience of white South Africa”, Black Sash was a constant reminder to all South Africans that its members were resolutely opposed to apartheid.

Born in the mid-fifties the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League (WDCL), or Black Sash as the organisation came to be known, united women opposed to apartheid.

Its members, silently standing on street ­corners with their placards condemning ­apartheid and its inhumane laws, became familiar sights on city roads around the country.

The Black Sash was founded 60 years ago when some 2 000 women gathered in ­Johannesburg on 25 May, 1955 bearing placards protesting against the National Party government’s proposed Senate Bill.

The Act changed senate representation sufficiently to enable the government to gain the majority it needed to remove coloured voters from the common roll in the old Cape Province.

Among the 1955 marchers was Else Schreiner, who was sent by the Witwatersrand WDCL to KwaZulu-Natal to spread the message and look at the possibility of forming local branches. Her visit resulted in the establishment of a ­Pietermaritzburg branch in May 1956.

Schreiner was to play a more significant role in local Black Sash activities when she and husband Deneys moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1959. Deneys had been appointed professor of inorganic and analytical chemistry at the local university campus.

And fittingly it was her father-in-law, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Schreiner, who was the lone dissenting Appeals Court judge opposing the removal of the coloured voters.

The history of the organisation’s work in KZN is detailed in the book Standing on Street Corners: A History of the Natal Midlands Region of the Black Sash, by Mary Kleinenberg and Christopher Merrett.

Published by the Natal Society Foundation, the book is being launched in Pietermaritzburg and in Cape Town, the headquarters of Black Sash.

The local launch takes place on Saturday, 16 May from 11.30am until 2pm in the Lorna Ferguson Room at the gallery in Chief Albert Luthuli Street.

Guest speakers will be two Black Sash stalwarts - national trustee Di Oliver, and former Midlands regional chairperson Paula Krynauw.

The book’s authors both have a long history of involvement in human rights issues.

Kleinenberg, who was born and educated in Zimbabwe, ­settled in Pietermaritzburg in the seventies.

Appalled by a political system that excluded most of the population and consistently ­committed crimes against humanity, she volunteered in the Pietermaritzburg advice office and became a member of Black Sash, eventually chairing the Natal Midlands region and Advice Office committee.

She remains a trustee of the Black Sash Trust; and is an advocate of women’s rights, being a founder member of Pietermaritzburg Rape ­Crisis.

Merrett was born in Britain, grew up in the West Indies and has lived in South Africa for the past four decades.

He has been an academic librarian, university administrator, journalist, writer and publishing editor. He was involved in non-racial cricket and detainee support work in eighties and much of his writing covers human rights issues, especially censorship.

Merrett has a PhD in History from the University of Cape Town and is currently engaged in researching aspects of the ­recent history and politics of ­Pietermaritzburg.

Standing on Street Corners: A History of the Natal Midlands ­Region of the Black Sash will be available at Saturday’s launch for a special price of R120 and afterwards for R210 from the NSF stockists, Bookworld, at Cascades shopping centre.

Other NSF publications will also be available at cost at the launch. - Supplied

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